The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. The Cleveland Clinic, an academic medical centre that is based in Cleveland, Ohio explains that “the lymphatic system is a network of tissues, vessels, and organs that work together to move fluid—called lymph—back into the bloodstream.”
The lymphatic system is made up of lymph nodes that are often, but not always, found in clumps, or chains, throughout the body. They are sometimes referred to as glands and may become swollen if you have a virus or an infection. They are commonly found in the armpits, groin, and neck, but are also found in the abdomen, chest, and pelvis. There are approximately 600 lymph nodes in the body.
The lymph nodes work like filters, cleansing the fluid (lymph) and removing damaged cells or cancer cells. The lymph nodes also support the immune system by destroying bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can cause illness or infection.
Lymphatic vessels are another part of the lymphatic system. These vessels are tiny tubes and capillaries that run throughout the entire body, similarly to veins. The vessels collect lymph from the tissues and transport it to collecting ducts—the thoracic duct and the right lymphatic duct—which then transport the lymph back into the bloodstream.
The appendix, spleen, tonsils and adenoids, thymus, bone marrow, and masses of tissue in the small intestine called Peyer’s patches, are all organs that also make up part of the lymphatic system. These organs help trap pathogens, distribute white blood cells that fight off infections or foreign organisms and destroy bacteria.
Signs your lymphatic system is sluggish
If your lymphatic system is not operating effectively, it can lower your immunity, affect your skin, and reduce your energy. Dr Sandra Cabot—author and Executive Director of the Australian Women’s Health Advisory Service—writes that approximately 80% of women have sluggish lymphatic systems and that boosting the lymphatic system is the key to weight loss and wellbeing.
Practicing Naturopath Inka Ferkova says that signs of a sluggish lymphatic system include:
· Oedema (swelling) in the fingers, toes and ankles
· A weak immune system – characterised by recurrent colds, ear infections and respiratory problems
· Dry, sensitive, itchy or acne-prone skin
· Brain fog and low energy
Whilst lymphatic disorders such as lymphedema, infection and cancer need to be treated by medical specialists, there are a number of ways you can boost your lymphatic system.
1. Dry skin brushing
Dry skin brushing is one way to improve the flow of the lymphatic system. Naturopath Jasmine Satchell says “dry skin brushing can stimulate the lymphatic system, as it helps to get the fluid moving. It also exfoliates the skin, increases circulation and boosts energy at the same time.”
To do a dry skin brush, use a body brush in a circular motion all over your body.
Without the use of any moisturisers or creams, start at the feet and gradually move up the legs, across the buttocks and onto the stomach, applying light-to-medium pressure. Then go onto your fingers and hands, travelling up your arms, along your jaw-line and then down towards your chest.
Jasmine says that because the purpose of dry skin brushing is to help move fluid through the lymphatic system always move towards the heart, but leaving that area until last.
If you are suffering from a sluggish lymphatic system, Jasmine says supplements such as zinc, vitamin C, Echinacea Astragalus, Reishi and Cleavers can all help promote lymph drainage, improve the immune system and reduce the risk of infections.
To check which herbs and supplements you should be taking always talk to one of our naturopaths in store or through private consultation.
3. Infrared Sauna
Stacey-Lea Gibson, Naturopath and Director of the Healthy Hub Wellness Centre says that infrared saunas are an excellent way to help promote lymphatic drainage. "Circulation and elimination are foundational principles for optimal health,” Stacey-Lea says. “Infrared light, a type of light that is emitted by the sun, or also within an infrared sauna, assists these important principles.”
Stacey-Lea explains that infrared light, from a full spectrum sauna, emits 3 different wavelengths: near-infrared, mid-infrared, and far-infrared which are between 700nm and 1000nm. “This is a safe and beneficial wavelength for the human body. Infrared light is perceived by thermal receptors on the skin and can penetrate up to 4cm beneath the skin. Internal cellular heating stimulates the relaxation of muscle, facia, and tendons and produces a reflex-modulated vasodilation response, meaning blood and lymphatic fluids are propelled forward through their vessels.”
Stacey-Lea explains that this process is beneficial for many elements of health, “As blood circulation increases, more oxygenated nutrient-rich blood reaches soft tissue, and at the same time, it stimulates the removal of accumulated toxins and metabolic waste within our lymph and cellular tissue. You need to eliminate to regenerate, thus incorporating infrared light may be a beneficial addition to your health care plan.”
Unlike blood which is pumped around the body by the heart, lymph relies on the contraction of the muscles to help it move through the vessels. Whilst all exercise is beneficial for the lymphatic system, MD Anderson Senior Physical Therapist Sarah Cleveland says on their website that exercising in the water has additional benefits because the pressure from the water also assists in the movement of the lymph.
Bouncing on a trampoline, also known as rebounding, is also a highly regarded form of exercise for lymphatic drainage. Rebounding can increase lymph flow by up to 30 times. Ellen Kamhi, Ph.D., R.N., AHG, AHN-BC says in her book Alternative Medicine Magazine's Definitive Guide to Weight Loss, “The rapid changes in gravity cause your lymph channels to expand and enhance lymph circulation. In fact, when you land on your trampoline, you experience twice the force of gravity. This makes bouncing more effective than running for stimulating lymph flow.”
Jackie Allen of Jackie Allen Yoga says that inverted poses such as Legs-Up-The-Wall (Viparita Kirani) and Wide-Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padotanasana) can help to stimulate lymph flow. “One of the common places lymph gets stuck is in the feet, ankles and lower legs,” Jackie explains. “Legs-Up-The-Wall allows for drainage whilst also being a restorative pose.”
To do this pose, Jackie says, “lie in a foetal position get your buttocks as close to the wall as possible. Roll onto your back and straighten the legs up the wall. You want to get your buttocks as close to the wall as possible. Rest your arms out from the body with palms facing up. Close your eyes and hold this pose for several minutes.”
The Wide-Legged Forward Bend is another pose that can help lymphatic drainage. “This is a great pose for the lymphatic system as the wide stance opens the groin where lymph is concentrated, and with the head below the heart encourages the movement of lymph in the upper body,” Jackie says.
To do the Wide-Legged Forward Bend Start in a standing position, move the legs out wide with your toes turned slightly in. With the hands on the hips, exhale as you lower down into a forward bend. Hands can remain on the hips, or place them on the floor, blocks, or any other support that allows you to be comfortable in this pose. “Focus on the breath as you hold this pose,” Jackie says.
5. Vegetables, water, and healthy fats
Drinking plenty of water, eating vegetables and healthy fats all help to promote a healthy lymphatic system.
Dehydration is a common cause of lymph congestion. When dehydrated, the lymph is more viscous and therefore, doesn’t flow around the body as easily. Water hydrates the lymphatic system and helps to keep lymph flowing smoothly through the body.
Vegetables—particularly chlorophyll-rich greens like spinach, kale, broccoli, and wheatgrass—help to remove harmful toxins. This in turn purifies the blood and aids the movement of lymph through the body.
Fats from nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado also play an important role in the health of the lymphatic system. Healthy fats absorb fat-soluble vitamins and minerals such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K. They also help reduce inflammation, support gut health and boost the immune system.